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Honor Won't Leave Lukas Speechless

Horse racing: Though often considered more of a promoter than trainer, accomplishments of Hall of Fame's newest member speak volumes.


LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Trainer Wayne Lukas stood at a lectern in the sprawling press box at Churchill Downs. He was talking to reporters after the announcement Tuesday of his election to the Racing Hall of Fame.

"I want to see all you guys up here again," Lukas said as the session wound down. "I want to see you about 5:54 p.m. on Saturday."

That would be just about the right time for the post-Kentucky Derby news conference, at the same lectern. With Lukas, the major race wins and the accolades have come as though released from a free-running spigot. But his mind-set has always been wrapped around the tomorrows. A Hall of Fame inductee one day, a Kentucky Derby winner a little later? Lukas thought that had a nice ring to it.

He's going to sneak up on this Derby if he's to win the race for the fourth time. His two horses, Cat Thief and Charismatic, are taking a back seat to the two from trainer Bob Baffert's barn, General Challenge and Prime Timber, in the betting. Lukas believes, however, his colts still have good chances.

"Wayne is the eternal optimist," said Bob Lewis, who co-owns Charismatic with his wife Beverly.

The Lewises and Lukas could have lost Charismatic--twice--for a $62,500 claiming price in California, but now the colt seems to be peaking. After running a poor fourth in the Santa Anita Derby, he won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in impressive fashion April 18. Handicappers who try to assess how fast a horse runs by distilling the time into a raw number usually leave Lukas cold. But now the figures for the Lexington--1 1/16 miles run in 1:41--are in favor of Charismatic, so he is embracing them.

Charismatic has won only two of seven starts this year, but that's still better than the underachieving Cat Thief, who has earned $281,500 finishing second and third twice each in four winless races. Still, Cat Thief ran a creditable second to Menifee in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and if you like Menifee--which many do--you also have to like Cat Thief a little bit. At least that's the way Lukas sees it.

Of Lukas' three Derby wins, two were stealthy affairs. In 1995, Thunder Gulch drubbed the field at 24-1, even though he had won the Florida Derby. The next year, Lukas ran five horses, but didn't talk much about Grindstone. The colt nailed Baffert's Cavonnier at the wire in the last jump and paid $13.80.

"The only reason I didn't talk much about him was because you guys [the press] never asked me about him," Lukas said.

Less than a week later, Grindstone was retired. Historically, he'll be remembered as the horse that cost Baffert three consecutive Derby wins--four, if one of Baffert's horses wins Saturday.

"What was overlooked about Grindstone," Lukas said, "was that he had had three knee operations between his 2-year-old and 3-year-old year. He was my best training job. Him and getting Tabasco Cat to go a mile and a half and win the [1994 Belmont]."

Lukas, 63, won his other Derby with Winning Colors in 1988. The horse was within a few thousand dollars of being the favorite--a favorite hasn't won the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979--but Winning Colors' victory was still a milestone because only two other fillies have won it. As of Tuesday, Baffert was thinking about running one of his two top fillies, Excellent Meeting, in the Derby, but it is more likely she'll surface in the Kentucky Oaks, which is limited to fillies, Friday.

Lukas has started at least one horse in every Derby since his first try in 1981--33 overall--but he incurred an avalanche of criticism in 1997 when he preserved the streak by running Deeds Not Words, a mediocrity who didn't belong. Some pundits accused Lukas of putting himself before his horse. Deeds Not Words ran last, beaten by more than 25 lengths.

The Deeds Not Words episode was the last straw for a dwindling minority that still supports Lukas in the print medium. They joined the majority of turf writers who think Lukas is more a promoter than a horseman; a guy who talks too much and races his horses too often, ending their careers prematurely. Then when Lukas, on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, complained he should have been considered sooner and suggested that he might not show up on induction day, some of the 130 voters were turned off.

Still, he was standing at the lectern Tuesday, having won out in the trainer category on a strong ballot that included Richard Mandella and Neil Drysdale. The Hall of Fame does not announce vote totals, and Lukas was the first to say, "I'm sure this wasn't unanimous."

Yet, anything but a landslide would have been laughable. His bare statistics run off the page: More than 500 stakes victories, almost $200 million in purses, 10 Triple Crown wins, 13 triumphs in the Breeders' Cup. He has led the country in purses 14 of the last 16 years. Another millennium from now, Lukas' extended run probably will be looked at with awe.

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